On December 20, 1984, 12-year-old Franklin Middle School student Jonelle Matthews vanished from her house in Greeley, Colorado. Moments earlier, she performed Christmas tunes with her school’s Honor Choir during a presentation.
Her friend’s dad escorted the young girl back to the house at 8 p.m. Jonelle was the only one at home; her mom was out of state caring for her own mother and her dad was at her older sister’s sporting event.
Tracks and Cover Up
Jonelle’s father, Jim Matthews, went home that evening to find his daughter missing.
Police would uncover tracks in the snow near the residence’s windows, with what looked to be rake lines trying to cover them, Jim informed “48 Hours” in August of this year. The tracks were the sole physical evidence detectives uncovered at the Matthews residence.
When authorities ran out of possibilities, they focused on Jim, who was subsequently dismissed as a suspect.
Years went sans answers to what occurred to young Jonelle, even with repeated probes and placing her face on milk bottles.
That is, until investigators honed in on Steven Pankey, who resided in Greeley with his family, about two miles from the Matthews residence at the time Jonelle vanished.
Pankey often had minor run-ins with the law, typically from public disputes. In one case, Pankey allegedly was charged with creating a disturbance and nuisance at a financial institution in Greeley.
Anthony Viorst, his previous defense attorney, stated on “48 Hours” that Pankey “argued with a bank clerk and the cops were alerted.”
“This sort of thing has happened to Mr. Pankey throughout the years. He’s had occasional sort of squabbles with individuals because he is an angry, prickly guy,” Viorst remarked.
A couple of years after Jonelle’s abduction, Pankey and his family relocated multiple times until settling in Idaho. He ran unsuccessfully for several positions, notably sheriff, town council, lieutenant governor, then governor.
Former Idaho Governor Candidate Convicted of Cold Case Murder of Girl, 12, Who Vanished in 1984.
— National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (@MissingKids) November 2, 2022
Run-ins In Idaho
Pankey even had run-ins with the law in Idaho and referenced Jonelle’s case in multiple court documents.
In 1999, he informed the Idaho Supreme Court that the sentence coming from the event at the bank was “an attempt to compel him “to serve as an undercover operative” in Jonelle’s case.
He also stated in court files that he was concerned he could “get the death punishment for exposing the whereabouts of Ms. Matthews body.”
This is turning to be a huge day for true crime! The verdict is in and Steve Pankey has finally been found guilty at his second trial for the murder of Jonelle Matthews! It's been a long time coming, but I'm glad there's finally a conclusive resolution…https://t.co/4hKycfQdrZ
— The Trail Went Cold (@robin_warder) October 31, 2022
Nonetheless, Pankey wasn’t tied to Jonelle’s abduction for another two decades.
In July 2019, oil and gas workers recovered Jonelle’s remains in an uninhabited area in Weld District, Colorado, people claimed. One year afterward, in October 2020, Pankey was jailed for Jonelle’s death following a criminal indictment.
Viorst, Pankey’s defense counsel at the time, told “48 Hours” there had been “no proof he committed this crime, no evidence that he had something to do with concealing the body.”
The accusation against Pankey stated he knew of a rake used to cover the tracks outside the Matthews residence the night Jonelle vanished.
Pankey was initially tried in 2021, but it resulted in a mistrial after a jury couldn’t get a unanimous decision. In 2021, a jury did find him guilty of false reporting. On October 30, 2022, he was charged with felony homicide and second-degree abduction.
This article appeared in NewsHouse and has been published here with permission.